OFFSEASON REVIEW: Atlanta Falcons
By Thomas Willoughby
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We begin our team by team offseason review with a look at the Atlanta Falcons
The 2020 Atlanta Falcons were, quite frankly, abysmal. Any momentum gathered heading out of 2019 was almost instantly lost. Before they were able to find their bearings, they were 0-5. Atlanta found incredible new ways to lose, much to the chagrin of longtime owner Arthur Blank, who called time on the Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff era.
Raheem Morris stepped in to steady the ship as the team’s interim head coach. Morris managed a 4-2 start to his reign, but lost 5 in a row to end the season, ending any chance he hoped of taking on the role full time.
The Falcons of 2020 were the culmination of everything that had transpired since 2017. The rushed replacement of Kyle Shanahan, and subsequently Steve Sarkisian, led to another stale offensive showing despite the bevy of talent available. Defensively, Atlanta struggled mightily, giving up the most passing yards across the league. The failure to create a consistently “ok” defense contributed hugely to the dismissal of Dan Quinn.
Regardless, the Falcons can come away from 2020 with some positives to hang their hats on. Calvin Ridley posted his first 1000+ yard season, stepping in for an oft-injured Julio Jones more than capably. First round pick, A.J. Terrell, showed enough promise to believe he would be able to play at a high level in the league for a while yet. 2021 should be better than 2020, at least.
Having survived the coaching overhaul of 2015, Arthur Blank opted not to keep long-time General Manager Thomas Dimitroff. He, alongside Head Coach Dan Quinn, were relieved of their duties mid-way through the season, as the side sought to get a jump on the coaching carousel early. That jump led them to Terry Fontenot, formerly of the New Orleans Saints. Fontenot leaves his role as the Saints Director of Pro Personnel to become the side’s 11th General Manager.
Taking over from Dan Quinn is Arthur Smith, who has spent the last decade with the Tennessee Titans. Arthur Smith has overseen the Titans’ offensive revival over the past two seasons, and it’s hoped he can kickstart a Falcons offense that has been void of imagination of late.
While Smith will be calling the plays, his offensive coordinator will be Dave Ragone. Ragone spent time alongside Smith in Tennessee at the start of the 2010’s, and most recently worked as the “passing game coordinator” with Chicago in 2020. Ragone describes his role has “setting the table” for Smith, so let’s hope his waiting skills are world class.
His defensive counterpart will be the legendary Dean Pees. Pees has won Super Bowl titles with New England and Baltimore, and most recently worked as the Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator. He retired after the run to the AFC Championship in 2019, but his love for Arthur Smith was enough to bring him back into the league.
State Of The Roster
The Atlanta Falcons are the worst best team in the NFL. There’s no way that a team that boasts Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, Grady Jarrett, and Deion Jones, should have a top 5 draft pick. And yet, here we are.
A great deal of the Falcons woes can be pointed to coaching. The previously mentioned lack of imagination on offense should be a thing of the past as the side moves from Dirk Koetter to Arthur Smith. You’d like to think that Dean Pees will be able to better prepare his defense than the previous regime could.
There are holes, of course. Losing 12 games in one season isn’t entirely a coaching issue. But the Falcons were involved in ten one-score games in 2020, and won two of them. The talent to be a good side right now is there.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
The biggest hurdle Fontenot will have is the cap situation. Atlanta head into 2021 an estimated -$11.6m in the red. A large amount of that figure can be attributed to Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Grady Jarrett. You would expect those players to be offered a restructure, to free up some room to maneuver.
The Falcons will have to make the decision to move on from at least a handful of players, however, if they want to make some moves in Free Agency. The most obvious move would be James Carpenter, who is set to count for $6.4m against the cap. Carpenter was brought in to solidify a porous Falcons offensive line, and arguably created more holes by himself. His release would save the Falcons roughly $4m. It makes too much sense to not.
And then there’s the case of Dante Fowler Jr. Fowler’s 2020 was, at best, atrocious. The Falcons took a huge swing on him reviving their pass rush, and missed by some distance. He carries an $18.5m hit in 2021, and a dead cap hit of $15.3. Financially, it makes the most sense for Atlanta to cut their losses now.
There are 16 names leaving Atlanta as unrestricted free agents, and it’s difficult to really make the case for many sticking around. You would imagine names such as Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Luke Stocker, Steven Means, and Justin McCray will be kept based on their depth potential. Beyond that, it gets a little dicey.
Keanu Neal is a fan favourite, who looked something close to his best for the majority of 2020. Having missed 2018 and 2019 with ACL and Achillies tears respectively, he was one of the great stories to come out of the Falcons miserable 2020. The former first rounder will have suitors, however, and it’s unlikely the Falcons will be able to match the offers he is likely to receive elsewhere. Chalk him down as someone the Falcons should resign, but likely will not.
Todd Gurley was once the best running back in the league. He went to Atlanta with question marks hanging over him regarding his health. He started 2020 looking to answer them, playing some excellent football. His play declined, however, and found himself on a limited snap count as the season wound down. While he has expressed a desire to return under Arthur Smith, chalk this one down as a failed experiment.
The Falcons are in an interesting position. They have a core nucleus of talent capable of hanging with the league’s best (see the 17-14 loss to Kansas City), and a handful of younger players worth building around. There’s a foundation already in place, but the holes are glaring. The Falcons should absolutely target a consistent edge rusher, competent left guard, and starting-calibre safety, in free agency, to put themselves in a good position to compete.
Then there’s what to do in the draft. The Falcons don’t find themselves in the top 5 very often, and there’s a good chance they won’t be in this position again. Matt Ryan is capable of playing at a high level for the next year or two at least, but the Falcons have an opportunity to secure their future in 2021. A quarterback isn’t necessary to be competitive this coming season. It could prove to be an opportunity they’re incapable of passing on.